So What Is The White Bluffs Bladderpod, And Why Does It Matter?

Jul 23, 2013

The White Bluffs bladderpod is a small plant growing on a tiny strip of Washington land. It’s the focus of a big fight between farmers and the federal government. And there’s still a lot scientists don’t know about the plant.
Credit U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The White Bluffs bladderpod is a small flower facing some big issues.  It’s a short plant with bright yellow flowers and small inflated pods – hence its name.  At first glance, there’s nothing special about it.  It isn’t edible and doesn’t have any herbal use that we know of.   But the bladderpod is rare.  It appears to grow only in a 17 mile long strip of federal lands in the Columbia Basin.  Right now, U.S. Fish and Wildlife lists the bladderpod as “threatened.”  They would like to list it as “endangered.” 

The problem is, the White Bluffs bladderpod doesn’t just grow on federal lands. It also grows on Washington farms.  Listing it as “endangered” would mean that farmers have to deal with the laws and regulations protecting endangered species, something farmers would like to prevent.  One of the biggest threats to the bladderpod is agricultural development.  It grows best in arid areas.  That’s why the federal government plans to step in and protect the plant. 

Here’s where things get controversial.  There’s another species of bladderpod in Washington: the Columbia bladderpod, also known as Douglas’ bladderpod.  It is not threatened.  The White Bluffs bladderpod is classified as a sub-species of the Columbia bladderpod.  And some farmers and scientists believe it is not a separate species as Anna King recently reported.

This is the Columbia bladderpod, also known as Douglas’ bladderpod. A farmer group ordered genetic testing of the plant and the White Bluffs bladderpod. According to the farmer group, results show the plants are the same species, meaning the White Bluff bladderpod is not endangered.
Credit Thayne Tuason, Creative Commons

What this means is that the White Bluffs bladderpod might not be endangered.  Instead, it might just be part of a common Washington species with a slightly different appearance based on where it grows.  The federal government says this isn’t the case.  The two plants look similar, and some experts say genetic testing is inconclusive.  The question isn’t likely to be settled soon. 

But what makes the White Bluffs bladderpod worth protecting? Why is it important?  The truth is, we don’t know much about the bladderpod.  And that’s what makes researchers want to protect it.  Scientists aren’t certain, for example, what types of insects pollinate it.  That could mean the bladderpod’s destruction may have wider consequences. 

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio